St. Lawrence brings home Québécois comfort food—and a pair of Gold medal wins.
“My family never went to restaurants when I was growing up,” recalls JC Poirier as he leans forward over a rare empty table at this year’s Restaurant of the Year. He points back at the kitchen, already in full cacophony five hours before opening, and says, “But we’re making the type of food here that I loved eating at home when I was a kid.” The chef speaks with the heavy accent of his Québécois upbringing, and it’s always a bit of a jolt to realize that someone who is so much a part of this city’s culinary fabric—in addition to St. Lawrence, he is also an owner of Ask for Luigi, Pourhouse, Pizzeria Farina and, recently, Di Beppe—arrived in this town only 14 years ago without speaking a lick of English. He worked alongside Rob Feenie and fellow Quebecer Marc-Andre Choquette at the legendary Lumière, where, building on the lessons he learned under Normand Laprise at Montreal’s Toqué!, he began the task of figuring out how to translate his youthful love of cooking into a tangible talent.
If Poirier were interested in building a creation myth, he would wax about his long-held dream to one day open a restaurant that was an ode to the food of his childhood, but, really, if he has any trait that rivals his cooking skills, it’s his matter-of-fact pragmatism. He learned the hard way—with the closure a decade ago of his first venture, South Granville’s much-loved but under-patronized Chow—that the number-one job of the chef/owner is to cook not for yourself but for the customer. So, a few years back when he got into authentic pizza, he figured out how to channel that passion into a commercial format, and that morphed into the lo-fi (and low-risk) Pizzeria Farina. Its huge success moved him to mould his passion for Italian food into Ask for Luigi (and lest anyone think he’s more a concept guy, he worked the cramped line at AFL for the first two years). But it was clear from its opening last summer that St. Lawrence—also named this year's Best New Restaurant—was something on a whole other plane. Sure, the space had to be right (it’s close to AFL, the rents are reasonable, it can accommodate enough diners to be feasible), but once he zeroed in on an idea that moved him—the confluence of classical French and Québécois cuisine—it was off to the races: “It was the easiest menu I’ve ever written,” he confides about the first time he put pen to paper to imagine what St. Lawrence would become.
The result is the intersection of a chef at the top of his powers with an owner who knows exactly how far his customers are willing to go with him. In this case, it’s the former Big Lou’s spot on a tough section of Powell, transformed by Craig Stanghetta into a cozy space that seems simultaneously luxe and understated. “I want it to look like it’s always been there” was Poirier’s directive, and as you walk through the door you recede into a space that eschews our city’s relentless focus on the outdoors and envelops you in some old-world charm.
But that charm offensive is just beginning. “I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a menu with such flow,” marvelled one Restaurant Awards judge, and (with only a hint of hyperbole) the dishes do play off each other like a symphony: the classics (a master class of a steak tartare, a beautiful mound of puff pastry hiding wild mushrooms in Mornay sauce, a classic meat pie first elevated with venison and then grounded with a playful Habs flag planted in the middle) give way to the fantastic (a savoury Paris–Brest that subs sweet cream out for foie gras mousse, a standard quenelle but made with fish and paired with mussels), which give way to a wine list that’s classical in its Gallic-ness but playful within those confines—natural Vouvrays, magnums of Bourgueil scattered among the Chablis and Bordeaux. And the allegro rice pudding is simply the best this town has ever seen.
“This is the sort of restaurant Vancouverites used to have to travel for,” was the comment of one judge.
Little of it seems to faze Poirier. He still appears to sweat the business side: a comment that the restaurant is constantly full is met with an immediate and reflexive recitation of times when there are spare seats (ed. note: Tuesdays at 9:30). He’s still happiest when he’s on the line, focused on the daily terrine, oblivious of the overnight success of St. Lawrence, 15 years in the making.